All About Setsuko Hara

Since last year, Shincho 45+, the Japanese magazine catering to the conservative readership, ran Setsuko Hara retrospective, not only once, but twice. A couple of articles on the actress were featured, but their marketing ploy for both occasions was the DVD packaged with the magazine, very rare silent films never released before (and of course, starring Setsuko Hara). I fell for the ploy on both occasions. Yet, Shinchosha decided to release another publication, this time whole book dedicated to Setsuko Hara, with another rare, never-released film on DVD. I decided to fall for their ploy again.

Even though Shinchosha is one of the more straight, somber, serious publishers in Japan, their features on Setsuko Hara in these publications are little more than collections of gossip articles. Especially this new book, titled “All About Setsuko Hara”, is full of hearsay and rumors. The tagline for this book is “Next to The Beauty, there was a Monster”, insinuating questionable relationship between Hara and her brother-in-law, Hisatora Kumagai. The titles of the articles sound like something from 1940’s tabloid journals: “The reasons Ozu did not marry Hara”, “I arranged the secret meetings for Hara and the Big Producer”, “The price of the great actress” and so on.

One of the most often quoted controversial story about Setsuko Hara is her alleged anti-Semitic remark. This story is originated in the interview collected in “Kouza Nihon Eiga (Seminar: Japanese Cinema)”, 7-volume series published by Iwanami Shoten in 1985. Tadashi Imai, the director of “The Green Mountains (1949)”, reminisces the bizarre relationship between Hara and Kumagai during the war years in his interview. Kumagai was a right-wing fanatic, and an active member of the group called “Smera-juku”, a radical political group, too strange to become popular even in the totalitarian Japan. The group advocated the plan to protect Japan from invasion of the Jews. According to Imai, Kumagai influenced young Hara to the point that she warned Imai about this “the invasion of the Jews”. He said this happened during the war, while shooting “Bourou No Kesshitai (1943)” in Korea. His interview is the only source that refers Hara’s alleged anti-Semitic remarks or views, and I have never seen anything else on the topic even remotely related. The interview was done in 1980’s, roughly four decades after and I feel that this story had to be digested with some skepticism. However, it had popped up in the various places (including Wikipedia Japan), and this new book details the story again to support its theory that Kumagai is some kind of Svengali to his sister-in-law.

The book is not without its merits. It has several articles by actors and actresses, reminiscing their encounters with the Setsuko Hara on the set. Tatsuya Nakdai recalls the nervous tension around the studio during the shooting of kissing scene in “Daughters, Wives and Mother (1960)”, while Kyoko Kagawa tells us the story behind the set of “Tokyo Story”. Setsuko Hara surprised them with her frank personality, quite different persona from the screen. She loved beer, little gambling, countered young Ryo Ikebe’s off-color joke (”You have a big butt like a stone mill”) by kicking him.

The accompanying DVD contains one of the rarest feature film starring Hara, “Nana Iro No Hana (七色の花, Seven-Colored Flower, 1950)”. The print was in the private collection, rarely seen after its initial release. It is about a novelist (Ichiro Ryuzaki) flirting with three women, Kazue (Rieko Sumi), Koyabu (Haruko Sugimura) and Teruko (Setsuko Hara). Even though the film is topbilled by Hara, her screen appearance is actually very limited. In fact, it is more or less dominated by Sugimura, who plays the (supposedly) voluptuous kept-woman in romantic battle with Hara and Sumi. Considering the fact that Sugimura played Hara’s aunt in Ozu’s “Late Spring” a year earlier, it is a total miscast, to say the least. The script, co-written by giants of Japanese cinema screen (Funabashi Kazuo [Gan no Koe], Kaneto Shindo Naked Island] and two others), has a slight hint of Lubitch-like humor, but mostly embarrassing throughout. Against all odds, Hara’s performance is still very solid and Sumi’s portrayal of young mistress is quite refreshing. It’s a strange peak into the world of “adult” romance in Japan more than half a century ago, with bold reference to sex, adultery and promiscuity.

Setsuko Hara is still alive and well (92 years old). After her retirement from the screen, she has never appeared in public, never agreed to any interviews or photographs, and never talked about anything about her life. Her images are forever frozen in the frames, completely shielded from vulgar reality – time itself. While most of the actors and actresses of her era deceased, this most mysterious actress is still with us. Come to think of it, she is only 20 km away from where I live. Now, that feels weird.

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Nikkatsu 100: A Century of Japanese Cinema

The letter “Katsu (活)” means “kinetic” as in Kinematograph and was the recurring Kanji character in vocabulary of Japanese cinema culture. As Katsudo-shasin (活動写真) is the almost literal translation of Kinematograph, many film studios had the letter “Katsu(活)” in their brand name. Tenkatsu (天活) was one of the earliest cinema studios, Tennnenn-shoku Katsudo-shasin Kabusikikaisha (天然色活動写真株式会社, 1914 – 1919), specialized in hand-painted color features. Kokusai-Katsuei (国際活映, 1919 – 1925), dubbed as Kokkatsu (国活), inherited Tenkatsu in 1919, while Taisho-Katsuei (大正活映, 1920 – 1927) or Tai-Katsu (大活) was another studio with artistic flavor. While these studios were all short-lived, spanning less than a decade, one company with “Katsu (活)” in its name was still (though barely) alive. Nikkatsu (日活), originally named Nihon-Katsudo-Shasin-Kabusikikaisha (日本活動写真株式会社), is the hallmark of Japanese cinema along with Shochiku and Toho studios. It was formed in 1912, merging four major studios at the time. Up until seventies, Nikkatsu was the most influential, certainly popular, though not always profitable, film studio in Japan. Its filmography represents the best and worst of Japanese cinema. As “Katsu” means “kinetic”, Nikkatsu was perpetually in motion, from breathtaking chases in “Chuji Tabinikki” to almost absurd gun-slinging in “Kenju-burai-cho” series, from Matsugoro Onoe in “Goketsu Jiraiya” to Yujiro Ishihara in “Crazed Fruits”. On the occasion of the centennial celebration, the National Film Center in Tokyo is running the Nikkatsu retrospective in this fall. 

Here is the partial list of the Nikkatsu films shown in the retrospective.
Goketsu Jiraiya (豪傑児来也, 1921) Starring Matsugoro Onoe, you can watch the clip here
Chuji Tabinikki (忠治旅日記, 1927) The masterpiece by Daisuke Ito
Furusato (ふるさと, 1930) The early talkie by Kenji Mizoguchi
Kouchiyama Soushun (河内山宗俊, 1936) One of the only three surviving Sadao Yamanaka’s films, starring young Setsuko Hara
Ketto Takadano baba (血煙高田の馬場,1937) Entertaining piece by Masahiro Makino, You can watch the clip here
Gonin no Sekko-hei (A Pay by the Wayside, 五人の斥候兵,1938) Surprisingly humane war drama by Tomosaka Tasaka
Tsuchi (Earth, 土, 1939) Tomu Uchida’s masterpiece
Keisatsu Nikki (警察日記, 1955) Comeback from the war years
Bakumatsu Taiyo-den (Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, 幕末太陽傳, 1957) Yuzo Kawashima’s incredibly nihilistic comedy
Guitar wo motta Wataridori (The Rambling Guitarist, ギターを持った渡り鳥1959) Still the best “Nikkatsu Action” film
Rokudenasi Kagyo (Sea Fighters, ろくでなし稼業,1961) Seminal “Nikkatsu Action”, starring Jo Shishido,
Aoi Sanmyaku (Green Mountains, 青い山脈,1963) Remake of the film of the same title (1949)
Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder, 赤い殺意, 1964) Imamura’s dark realism
Watashi ga Suteta Onna (The Girl I Abandoned, 私が棄てた女,1969) The end of the era
Shinayaka na Kemono-tachi (Sensuous Beasts, しなやかな獣たち1972, Nikkatsu “Roman Porno”) Debut for Naomi Tani
Onna Jigoku, Mori wa Nureta (Woods Were Wet, 女地獄・森は濡れた1973, Nikkatsu “Roman Porno”) The controversial work banned by the bad timing.
There is virtually very little chance to catch such early silents as Tokkyu Sanbyaku Mairu (Express 300 Miles, 特急三百哩, 1928), Ai no Machi (The Town of Love, 愛の町,1928) or early Imamura “Nusumareta Yakujo (Stolen Desire, 盗まれた欲情,1958)”, not to mention a group of Nikkatsu Roman Porno. This will be one of the best retrospective in years to come.
Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).